Mythology, Madness and Laughter – The Mythological Being of Reflection 1.1

Apologies for the somewhat belated posting. I’d planned on typing this out last  night, but had a sudden onset of food-borne nausea. It was the food or seeing Boston beat Cleveland in Game Six of the Eastern Conference semis. Either way, I was too ill to type.

Speaking from experience, if understanding the ins and the outs of German idealism is difficult to attain, articulating this understanding so others might understand better is even harder. Not only do the ideas themselves require patience in order to tease them out adequately, one must also be patient with the necessary repetition for these ideas to be so teased. There is, in short, no getting around the house-of-mirrors effect inherent to thinking about Hegel. Whether you derive joy or frustration from this, patience is required all the same.

Consequently, it is no surprise that Gabriel very deliberately paces this section, ‘1. The Appearances – Hegel on Reflection’. We know from our History of Philosophy textbooks, aka Common Knowledge, that the upshot of Hegel’s is an all-encompassing (universal) Absolute. While there is a certain ring of truth to this characterization, Gabriel attempts to demonstrate that what is typically lost in this flattening out of Hegel’s thought is actually so crucial as to make the “upshot-version” of Hegel ultimately inadequate to understanding what he was really on about. What we miss, rather, is that what Hegel means when he tosses out ideas like  “totalization” is actually quite different from that which most of the post-Hegelian world has developed a reasonable allergy. (I would add here that the difference is actually really quite subtle; but perhaps a crucial subtlety. More on this a little further down.)

To appreciate the precision of Hegel’s thought, Gabriel explains, one must first understand the philosophical problem (or, as we’ve seen pop up in the comments already, the philosophical “conversation”) with which he was engaged: namely, the problem of the subject.

In the course of modern philosophy from Descartes through empiricism to Kant, the concept of substance preceding or transcending the subject’s grasp got lost. At some point, in particular in Hume, the self threatened to dissolve into a bundle of representations because it also lost its substantial status as a unitary soul. The idea behind this development is simple, yet it is missed by most of the contemporary debate about dream and reality and accordingly about the problem of the external world: if the self represents itself, it ipso facto becomes a dream-like experience, i.e. an appearance of itself. (p. 30)

The problem, then, is that the subject’s “appearance of itself” can never be unmediated. It is never simply “itself,” but rather an “appearance of itself.” Gabriel illustrates this nicely by appealing to contemporary cinema’s fascination with itself. Such a film, for example, might depict the cameras and the crew filming the very scene about the cameras and the crew filming the scene — or perhaps you would might have a camera filming nothing but itself in a mirror — and yet all this still would be a mediated appearance of the actual cameras and crew, rather than the cameras or crew in-themselves.  The problem then:

If our relation to determinate objects in the world, i.e. our relation to substances, is conceptually mediated and, therefore, presupposes the possibility of getting it right or wrong, then we cannot rule out for any supposed representation of a substance that we are misled by its appearances. . . . Now, if we relate to ourselves and our position with the meshwork of potentially true beliefs, i.e. if we have beliefs about ourselves, we eo ipso assume a position towards ourselves in which we might get it wrong.  (p. 30)

Kant understood this better than most: that “if the self was a substance, our cognitive access to it would have to be the grasp of a substance. Yet, our cognitive access to any substance is fallible insofar as it has to represent the substance in question.” (p. 31) If you’ve ever labored through the First Critique and couldn’t figure out what Kant was trying to say or do, basically, that’s it. For Kant, we can only ever know substances/phenomena, which we understand by way of conceptual categories. (When there is no conceptual category, the result isn’t merely misunderstanding or ignorance; there is, rather, no experience at all.) Everything we know has to be “conceptualized,” even those things we suppose we’re “de-conceptualizing” (even avowedly ineffable things like, say, God).

What distinguishes Hegel from Kant is that the latter, in the words of Gabriel, is “optimistic” that even an attempted conceptualization of the in-itself does not actually affect the in-itself. It remains, as it were, untouchable and unthinkable. Merely a regulative idea — i.e., just beyond all possible conceptual categorization, and (at best) that toward which categorization aspires.

For Kant the uncanny structure of the self’s elusiveness, i.e. the subject’s nothingness, ultimately opens a space for consolation and hope: if, in principle, we cannot figure out who or what we really are (our substance), we are at least entitled to believe as if we dwelled in an intelligible realm of pure freedom ruled by God. (p. 32)

It is to this very aspiration, however, that Hegel, through Fichte especially, bases his objection. Simply put, where this non-conceptualizable “nothing” (the essential / the in-itself) for Kant is just beyond the epistemological limits of experience, it is internalized for Hegel as an ontological condition for experience. The problem, as Gabriel explains, is that Kant posits the essential “over against the inessential without reflecting the constituting act separating the essential from the inessential.” (p. 34)  That is to say, the essential is “essential” only when it is set against the inessential — i.e. the “illusory” stuff of our concepts and experience.  As a result, “Reality is not out there, but the result of an operation which distinguishes illusion and reality. Without this distinction, the term ‘reality’ does not make sense.” (p. 34) Far from being “the totality of mind-independent objects extended in space and time,” substantial reality, then, is a product, or the end result, of a process of “reduplication” — that is, the process of producing representations of itself.

The ultimate example of this is what happens at the zero-level of Being — absolute self-subsistence, absolute freedom, and free of all concept & category. What happens here Hegel calls  “the movement of nothing to nothing, and so back to itself.” (qtd. p. 40) That is to say, a nothing becomes-itself only by virtue of its (self-represented, and thus self-conceptualized) nothingness. Precisely this movement, the negation of nothing (as absolute self-subsistence), constitutes the being of nothing.

Being only is as the movement of nothing to nothing, and as such it is essence; and the latter does not have this movement within it, but is this movement as a being that is itself absolutely illusory, pure negativity, outside of which there is nothing for it to negate but which negates only its own negative, which latter is only in this negating. (qtd. p.40)

Which is to say, in the simplest terms, there is no transcendent One outside illusory experience. The subject’s substance/reality/essence, rather, “is only retroactively posited in the process of the self’s constitution.” (p. 41) Where there is no illusion, there is no existence; and where there is no existence, there is no subject. Claims of necessity are borne of contingency: i.e. they “presuppose the discipline of rules and therefore of rule-following practices in order to make sense for finite creatures like us.” (p. 44)

It may be objected — and has been — that Hegel is setting up his own necessary, totalizing truth, and is thus contradicting himself. Gabriel’s rebuttal is worth quoting & discussing in the comments:

Hegel’s assertion that being ultimately amounts to nothing other than the  universality of the Notion means that there cannot be anything outside of logical [i.e. reflective] space. Logical space does not exist; it is not an entity, but a continual manifestation of actuality. . . . There is no metaphysical hyper-theory; there is only a meta-theory which spells out the conditions for there not being metaphysical hyper-theories of the beyond.  Accordingly, Hegel’s Science of Logic is not designed to form an ultimate hyper-theory which transcends discursive finitude, but on the contrary investigates into the nature of determinacy or finitude. To be sure, Hegel says such things as the ‘the finite sublates itself by virtue of its own nature, and passes over, of itself, into its opposite.’ But this does not mean that the movement of sublation ever terminates in a final statement of sublation. The finite only transcends itself into another finite position. (p. 46)

For my part, as I argue in a forthcoming essay in Anthony’s co-edited volume, I’m increasingly not so sure what the practical pay-off is of this ontological investment. Which is to say, yes, Hegel radicalizes Kant, but I’m not altogether sure that Kant’s Third Critique doesn’t effectively get him roughly to the same place as Hegel. After all, neither denies the Absolute Subject: it’s contingently necessary for Kant, sure, and necessarily contingent for Hegel; but whether it comes at the beginning or end of the process, both insist on the priority of its becoming (i.e., that it is not a static imposition from beyond) and highlight the participatory nature of this becoming. What does ontology offer, then, beyond “getting it right”?

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17 Responses to “Mythology, Madness and Laughter – The Mythological Being of Reflection 1.1”

  1. Jon Says:

    “What distinguishes Hegel from Kant is that the latter, in the words of Gabriel, is “optimistic” that the this substantialization of the in-itself does actually affect the in-itself.”

    Should this read – “What distinguishes Hegel from Kant is that the latter, in the words of Gabriel, is “optimistic” that the this substantialization of the in-itself does NOT actually affect the in-itself.”?

    If not, I’m confused…

  2. Brad Johnson Says:

    Oops. Yeah. I mangled that. Sorry about that. I’ll edit in the text.

  3. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I love the ending question. I’ve found Gabriel’s writing to be quite exciting, but do keep wondering about what this gets us. I suppose it’s a certain antipathy towards philosophy I’ve had as of late anyway, but I don’t see, so far, how this is anything other than a secondary text on German Idealism (one that repeats a lot of what I learned when I read Kant as an undergrad and the lectures on tragedy that Krell gave), when they wanted to give us something to fuck up the contemporary.

  4. Guido Nius Says:

    Brad, I have been reading this a couple of times. Hegel isn’t someone I explored but what you say in the last paragraph resonates with me: the third critique was in a way too much for my un-‘Absolute’ convictions. As I am trying to trace back from contemporary philosophy discussions of ‘self’, it baffles me how much of it has been preshadowed before. But, that being said, I think the ‘threat’ of Hume as mentioned above is neither a threat nor something that has been avoided. Is there as far as you know here recent work that endeavours to find the source of morality in the fact that selves are just socially constructed ‘appearances’ – and therefore not to be confused with single physical bodies?

    (sorry to barge in)

  5. Brad Johnson Says:

    Guido, the first name that jumps out at me is Foucault; the second follows on the heels of Foucault, and it is Jacques Ranciere. Both, the former does so more or less explicitly, the latter in spirit, an “aesthetics of existence” that I find more compelling than ontological hand-wringing.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Brad, Ontology doesn’t just wring its hands — it shows how being always-already wrings its own hands. That might seem like a subtle distinction, but all is lost if we can’t maintain it.

  7. Alex Says:

    I wonder if we could talk about why Hume’s disolution of the subject is percieved as a threat. Seems to me that Hume’s disposing of the self, and talking of things more relationally, and indeed, more ecologically, might be a good thing.

  8. Guido Nius Says:

    Brad, thanks – I will add it to my reading schedule. I’ve once started reading a Cambrige Companion to Foucault but I’ve classified it long ago as ‘typical continental BS’. Maybe it is a good occasion to take it out again.

    Further, what Alex said, Hume is great on how things of the highest value emerge without needing to assume the great dogmatic conventions.

    Finally, coming from Quine & Davidson, the interesting thing for me is the ontological commitment in language and how it (contingently!) necessarily leads to selves, and a morality of communication.

    (thanks for having me)

  9. Daniel Lindquist Says:

    “Seems to me that Hume’s disposing of the self, and talking of things more relationally, and indeed, more ecologically, might be a good thing.”

    Maybe if Hume hadn’t also dissolved “things” and everything else besides simple impressions and associative connections between them. If you want to try doing ecology with the vocabulary of sense-data, be my guest. I think having causal notions is rather important for doing ecology, personally.

  10. Alex Says:

    That was a bit of a hardcore answer! Yet, I’m not just talking about Hume, but the tenor of discussion here – why the need to defend the self? For one, Buddhism has been using a model of the self far closer to Hume’s notion for thousands of years.

  11. Hill Says:

    Great stuff there, Adam. It is essential to keep your point in mind as we proceed.

  12. Brad Johnson Says:

    That might seem like a subtle distinction, but all is lost if we can’t maintain it.

    That seems a little dramatic, doesn’t it? If being is “always-already” wringing its hands, I don’t really know that not maintaining it loses anything at all. That is to say, if the claim is true, it shouldn’t matter whether we maintain (whatever that should mean!) that it is true.

  13. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    I think that what is at stake with post-Kantian idealism, especially Schelling as he himself expounds it, and what is equally at stake with Humean dissolution of the self, is not ontological hand-wringing but what we today call agency but then was simply called Freedom. This freedom was deeply colored by its political meaning (how could it not be after the French Revolution?) The stakes of ontology are the stakes of freedom (and the possibility of political revolution), and I think Zizek (from his essays on Schelling that I know) and I suspect also Gabriel (whom I have not had a chance to read) are pushing this point. The question was whether a systematic answer to Hume (one that would get philosophy past skepticism about any enduring subjectivity that could be the site of freedom) could avoid plunging subjectivity back into a deterministic ground a la Spinoza. This is the heart of Jacobi’s gambit in questioning system-building metaphysics, and it is what Schelling tried to answer in his Essay on the Nature of Human Freedom. But the freedom that Schelling opens up for humans is grounded in Being (God) itself, a freedom for good and evil that means that that Being itself is already shot through with evil, not as maliciousness but as the shirking of the risk to let oneself be free, to take responsibility for one’s very being. What is politically at stake here is something that Schelling could not have fully appreciated, although he certainly understood how the struggle for political freedom had deteriorated into a miserable acquiescnece in the post-Napoleonic order of police spies and self-satisfied burghers. The quest for the reality of freedom even if it meant the reality of evil at the root of being itself was only fully unpacked when Heidegger took Schelling as his pretext for preaching the decision to embrace evil as the only way to break with the complacency of bourgeois existence (in his lectures on Schelling’s essay). The case of Heidegger shows that what is at stake in post-Kantian idealism is nothing less than taking responsibility for history. It can lead one to plunge history into chaos if only one does it decisively (Heidegger), or it can lead one to decide to take responsibility for inheriting whatever freedom history has to offer that is in danger of slipping into forgetfulness (the path that Schelling himself offered in his lectures on mythology and revelation, and that Rosenzweig, a great reader of Schelling, carries forward). I should say that while all this seems rather Germanocentric, I know Brad would agree that the question of the inextricable link between freedom and evil, and the stake this creates for any politics, is at the heart of Melville’s writing (who at least knew Schelling indirectly through Coleridge). I look forward to reading the book (I still am waiting to get it through interlibrary loan). I hope it will show how all this ontological hand wringing about Being and Nothingness and negative reflexivity is only setting the scene for the big questions about freedom, evil, decision, politics, and history.

  14. Brad Johnson Says:

    I would certainly agree with what Bruce says about the ontological considerations in idealism being deeply rooted in considerations of (revolutionary) agency. No question about that. Or, at the very least, it started out that way.

    Additionally, Bruce’s comment reminds me to post a quick disclaimer. I hope that my post conveyed more ambivalence than my subsequent comments w/r/t a certain type of ontological priority. Specifically, that priority which comes at the expense of Kant, who I think often gets an excessively bad hand-slapping in some of these discussions — no thanks to the likes of Nietzsche, and such. (“Stupid Kant, he couldn’t move beyond epistemological limits!” As I’ll try to suggest tomorrow, this might not be such an non-radical move on his part.) I won’t belabor the point here or in tomorrow’s post, as these posts aren’t really intended to promote my research agenda, but I will say that I think aesthetics (indeed, even a kind of Kantian aesthetics) helps with some of the sticking points that I think emerge in post-Kantian idealism itself & Gabriel’s discussion thereof.

  15. Guido Nius Says:

    That’s it of course – why we come to this point from different directions: we want morality to be inescapable (to use some word other than ontological) but we need our actions to be, at least, underdetermined if this morality is to have a sense for us.

    I can see that for some Hume went to far on the latter, but he did go some length on making the former plausible. This being said if you dissolve radically this Self that is attached to this body and you allow to construct a Self that – while it remains very far from Buddhist or pansychist ideas – needs social interaction to start up at all … you have an ontology of Self that maybe might prove to do what intuition wants us to do.

  16. Guido Nius Says:

    That is, by the way, a very optimistic ecological view – but I don’t know in how far that is compatible with anything that is explicitly tied to Hegel and followers.


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